Define: Sustainable Seafood

The Question

Ever sit down at a restaurant and wonder where the fish you have just ordered came from? What type of harvesting methods were used or simply whether or not the species is sustainable and been supplied by a sustainable source?

A few months ago, Simon Day, chef and course instructor of Pj’s Restaurant in the Atrium and of  HTM*3090, and I pondered the question of why Atlantic Salmon was not considered a sustainable fish. Being one of the most commonly served seafood items in any given restaurant, I was stumped. How could it possibly not be sustainable in any form? Our conversation touched on questions surrounding what sources are available and what sources are chefs currently using?

As a student, interested in sustainable restaurant practices, this question probed me to dive into further research, in order to determine the reasoning behind the non-sustainable fish product. I set out to find who the credible resources are in terms of classifying fish as sustainable/non-sustainable.

I was always under the impression that sustainable seafood only meant that the products were not endangered species and that there was a plentiful supply to go around. Turns out I was mistaken and there is a much longer list of details and criteria regarding sustainable seafood.

To begin with, what is sustainable seafood???

Sustainable seafood: species that are caught or farmed in a way that ensures the long-term health and stability of that species, as well as the greater marine ecosystem.

The Problems

Overfishing, bycatch and habitat damage are three of the main reasons why we are currently having issues with our marine ecosystem.


  • Over the past 40 years, seafood consumption world-wide has doubled.
  • Each year approximately 130 million tons of seafood is harvested annually.
  • Industrial improvements in the fisheries have made it easier to fish larger amounts in shorter periods of time, thus increasing the amount of species being removed.
  • Species can not reproduce fast enough to keep up with the amount being fished.


  • Bycatch is fish species that are caught unintentionally, while fishing for other species.
  • Bycatch accounts for approximately 25% of what is caught in commercial fisheries.
  • Bycatch can include unmarketable species, undersized species, and endangered species and are usually discarded (back overboard) after sorting occurs.

Habitat Damage

  • Specific harvesting methods can cause serious damage to the marine habitats and to the ecosystem.
  • This is another reason why it is important to know what kind of harvesting methods were used for the fish you are eating.
  • Once damaged, many of these habitats will not be able to return to their original and healthy state.

Fishing Techniques

Trawling, dredging and pelagic long lining are all fishing techniques that cause a high level of bycatch. These methods are generally used to catch species such as, shrimp, scallops and other wild shellfish, mahi mahi, tuna, swordfish, and ground fish. This does not mean that these species are automatically non-sustainable. In fact, by using a sustainable fishing method, many of the species listed above can be caught with limited bycatch.

Trolling, hook and line, pot and traps are all sustainable fishing methods that produce low levels of bycatch.

Trawling and dredging also have negative effects on the actual marine ecosystems. This issue here is that because trawlers essentially sweep areas of the seafloor, species are prevented from reproducing and regrowing. Cod, shrimp, and ground fish (sole and flounder) are all species that can be caught by bottom trawlers.

Dredges are also negative fishing methods as they rake the ocean’s bottom habitat. This creates a disturbance in the seabed, as the fisheries sift out the targeted species, typically shellfish.


Aquaculture, if done sustainably, can help to take pressure off of the seafood wild stocks and provide a source of protein in areas where other alternatives are becoming very limited.

Many negative environmental aspects can also be produced through aquaculture from habitat damage and degradation, pollution, and disease outbreaks.

Coastal ponds are constructed when mangroves and wetland habitats are intentionally destroyed. Harvested in coastal ponds, you will find shrimp and prawns. Due to the destructive manner of this harvesting method, these items should be avoided.

Atlantic salmon is not considered to be sustainable as they are fished through an open net pen system, which creates major environmental concerns.

Farmed scallops, mussels, clams and oysters are all options for sustainably farmed shellfish. The reason why these specific species are more sustainable than the wild versions, is due to the way they are harvested from suspended trays or lines.

Rainbow trout, tilapis, channel catfish, sturgeon, and Arctic Char are all good sustainable seafood alternatives as they are farmed inland in a closed system.

The Resources

An informative resource to watch is The End of the Line documentary, which was filmed over two years, while following the investigative reporter Charles Clover. Clover travels to confront politicians and celebrity restaurateurs, who exhibit little regard for the damage they are doing to the oceans but endorsing non-sustainable seafood.

A pile of dead fish

“The End of the Line, the first major feature documentary film revealing the impact of overfishing on our oceans, had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. In the film we see first-hand the effects of our global love affair with fish as food.”

One of the most prominent resources on sustainable seafood is the Ocean Wise program. The Vancouver Aquarium founded their Conservation Program titled OceanWise in order to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood.

“Ocean Wise works directly with restaurants, markets, food services and suppliers ensuring that they have the most current scientific information regarding seafood and helping them make ocean-friendly buying decisions. The options are highlighted on their menus and display cases with the Ocean Wise symbol, making it easier for consumers to make environmentally friendly seafood choices. The Ocean Wise logo next to a menu or seafood item is an assurance that the item is a good choice for keeping ocean life healthy and abundant for generations to come.”

The Ocean Wise website is a great resource for chefs or consumers, who are trying to determine if their seafood choices are sustainable or not. There is a complete  directory of all fish types, their location, harvesting methods and supplier. Within each species is a list of each area, determining if it is recommended (sustainable), not recommended (not sustainable) or under review (has yet to be determined). Ocean Wise has also released a mobile app for iPhones which makes their information more accessible to everyone.

There are multiple credible sources available to the general public concerning sustainable seafood and we must take an interest in our environment and use the information that is presented.

Think about our ecosystems and future generations, eat sustainably.

3 thoughts on “Define: Sustainable Seafood

  1. I hadn’t heard of Ocean Wise, but will check that out. I’ve been using Seafood Watch, which also has a mobile app – will be interesting to see if the two resources give similar suggestions.

  2. I dont believe people realise just how big an issue seafood sustainability should be. Just a thought: to what degree would the servers have an effect on seafood consumption as a whole, at the table level?

    One of your previous articles mentioned about how the consumer is the everything in a restaurant, that as an industry, we have to follow popular trends. Could the FOH staff contribute to sustainable seafood through selling?

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